* Over birthday pizza and chicken wings, a decision to leave
* Ex-NSA contractor accused of espionage hid in small apartment
* Two sets of advisers: Hong Kong lawyers and WikiLeaks
By James Pomfret and Greg Torode
HONG KONG, June 24 (Reuters) - Hunkered down in a small apartment in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden was running out of options.
The United States had charged him with felonies under the Espionage Act and demanded that Hong Kong authorities arrest him. His trio of high-powered local lawyers had warned the former U.S. spy agency contractor he might be stuck in legal limbo for years - and possibly detained - if he stayed put and requested asylum in the city-state of Hong Kong, where authorities answer to China’s central government in Beijing.
Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking secrets of U.S. electronic surveillance, already had spent nearly two weeks in hiding. He ventured out rarely, and only at night, according to a portrait of Snowden’s stay in Hong Kong from an interview with one of his lawyers - Albert Ho, a former chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.
Over pizza and chicken wings with his lawyers on Friday, his 30th birthday, Snowden agreed he had no choice. He would flee, and seek protection from the U.S. justice system elsewhere. He bought a plane ticket for Saturday night.
But he hesitated, according to Ho, even with a message via a third party that Snowden should feel free to leave.
It took another day for Snowden to decide he had no choice but to get on a plane. On Sunday, he flew out of Hong Kong, bound for Moscow - and kicked off a global pursuit that continued to unfold, with as many twists and turns as a spy novel.
The mystery of Snowden’s precise whereabouts continued on Monday. He appeared to have purchased a ticket for a flight from Moscow to Cuba, but someone else occupied his seat. However, before the plane left, a white van approached and police stood by as a man in a white shirt climbed the stairs. This man could not be identified by reporters watching in the transit area.
Snowden spent his first three weeks in Hong Kong in a five-star luxury hotel, the modernist Mira. He rarely left his room, hotel staff said, dining on room service. It was during this period that Snowden leaked his explosive revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s international surveillance program to journalists from The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The Guardian on June 9 posted a video of Snowden identifying himself as the source of the surveillance information.
Snowden checked out of the Mira on June 10, according to staff at the hotel, and moved into a private flat. He would move again, at least once, under cover of darkness, “very carefully so that no one would know,” Ho said.
From these hiding places, Snowden appears to have conducted two parallel, but separate, negotiations for his future.
He spoke frequently with a team of three prominent Hong Kong lawyers who are well known for their work on human-rights campaigns. In addition to Ho, there was Jonathan Man, a colleague of Ho’s at the firm of Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners; and Robert Tibbo.
Tibbo and Man previously had handled several controversial cases, including a bid to sue the Hong Kong government in 2004 for extraditing Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi back to Tripoli, where Saadi says he was tortured.
“If I were looking for a Hong Kong lawyer who was ready to take on the government for a tough fight, (Tibbo) would definitely be one of the top three to four people I would pick,” said Cosmo Beatson, the executive director of Vision First, a group helping asylum seekers in the city of more than 7 million people. Tibbo is a director of the group.
But even as he worked with his team of lawyers, Snowden also was working another angle. He had made contact with the team from WikiLeaks, the loose-knit global group committed to disclosing secrets.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told reporters Monday that his organization paid for Snowden’s lodging in Hong Kong and his flight out. Assange said that Snowden was “bound for Ecuador,” via Russia and perhaps other countries as well.
Snowden went absent from his job as an NSA contractor in Hawaii saying he needed medical leave. The ease with which he slipped out of the country with classified secrets has become a huge embarrassment to the United States.
U.S. officials filed sealed criminal charges against Snowden on June 14. The next day, U.S. officials, under an extradition agreement, asked Hong Kong authorities to detain Snowden as a prelude to a formal request from the Americans to extradite Snowden.
Such a process is normally simple, but Hong Kong authorities - in what U.S. officials perceived as a sign that Beijing was involved - moved slowly and requested clarification on some of the paper work.
The Hong Kong government’s statement that “the documents provided by the U.S. Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law” was considered unusual, according to a prominent barrister and extradition expert in Hong Kong who declined to be identified.
The barrister suggested that officials seemed to be trying to stall the proceedings, perhaps mindful of Beijing’s influence and public opinion in Hong Kong that appeared to be sympathetic to Snowden’s effort to expose U.S. government surveillance.
“The reason given by the Hong Kong authorities about a problem with the documents seems surprising, because there’s a very low threshold to clear,” the barrister told Reuters.
Last Wednesday, on June 19, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder personally called Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen to plead for swift movement to detain Snowden.
The next day, Snowden asked Ho for a favor: Would he approach Hong Kong authorities to feel out their position on the U.S. extradition request? Most important, could Ho find out whether Hong Kong officials would try to stop Snowden if he fled the peninsula?
Ho didn’t get a response to his queries. But Ho said that an undisclosed third party soon approached an associate of Snowden, claiming to have a message from the government: Snowden should feel free to leave.
Snowden wasn’t sure whether the message was reliable or trustworthy, Ho said.
But on Sunday, his lawyer Man accompanied Snowden to the airport. Man was there, Ho said, “to ensure (Snowden’s) safe departure, or if he were detained at the airport, we would apply for bail or habeas corpus to seek his immediate release from detention.”
Snowden also was joined by a representative of WikiLeaks, Sarah Harrison. He presented his passport and his ticket at the Aeroflot counter and checked in without a hitch. Later on Sunday, an official source said the United States had revoked Snowden’s passport.
With that, Snowden was off to Moscow. And the U.S. government’s pursuit of him veered to a new venue, with new complications.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said the organization helped Snowden apply for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and perhaps elsewhere.
As the hunt continued, WikiLeaks founder Assange told reporters that Snowden was safe, healthy and in contact with his legal team. “He is in a safe place,” Assange said, “and his spirits are high.” (Writing by Stephanie Simon; Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by David Lindsey and Tim Dobbyn)